Category Archives: hardware

Vista… 64-bit… Where’s My Headroom?

Other than a couple of virtual machine beta builds, I had managed to stay out of Vista entirely until the last month or so. Since then I’ve tried to install on three machines–a client’s Dell Optiplex, which never was able to boot after install, and two home-built systems. This weekend I built a brand new system out of all Vista-logo components. It booted; Vista reported the hardware compatible; it even got a 5.8 experience index score. But I had continuous crashing of both IE and Windows Explorer. Also, on what should have been basically the fastest hardware available, the Vista with SP1 install took over 90 minutes.

I’m walking away. My current approach for my development machine is going to be Windows Server 2008 Standard 64-bit. Again I have certified components, but 64-bit in itself represents a struggle in terms of driver and application compatibility. We’ve had 64-bit CPUs in our machines for going on 5 years, and 64-bit Windows options for almost as long, and yet you still cannot run common programs and drivers in the environment–Flash, TWAIN, most VPN software, the list of things you can’t do (or do well) is astoundingly comprehensive.

We’re heading toward a very real wall here: 32-bit versions of Vista (as with other flavors of Windows) are limited to 4GB of RAM. Yet that is simply not enough for Vista plus any serious suite of applications. At the same time, 64-bit Windows still isn’t a truly viable desktop for most users. Out of necessity, I’ll compromise on many fronts–multimedia capability, peripheral compatibility, native software availability–but some of this stuff isn’t easily virtualizable, so I’m looking at the possibility of having to keep 32-bit systems around (for example for scanning, connecting to client VPNs, etc.). I’m really starting to feel hemmed in.

I guess I could take a step back here and look at it from the Mac perspective. It works because it’s broken; it’s broken because it works. That is, by forcing a switch to 64-bit Server I’m pruning the 16- and 32-bit dead wood that’s keeping me in the 4-gigabyte sandbox. Apple users long ago embraced obsolescence as a feature. Vista and 64-bit computing may (finally) force the Windows side of the PC world to wake up to this. Or maybe not. There’s a downside to the Mac example: “performance” in an absolute sense is to some extent irrelevant, and scaling up doesn’t necessarily have to be as smooth or cheap as we’re used to, as long as the chrome is shiny and doesn’t peel off too obviously.

This issue bears similarities to the current Internet Explorer 8 web standards argument–do we break the web (force IE8 standards mode, cripple billions of web pages) to move toward the Platonic ideal of standards? Do we break the PC ecosystem (Vista, 64-bit) for the hope of increased functionality and capacity in the next generation of platforms (available today, but considered unusable by the consumer)? You know it’s a tough question when even Joel Spolsky can’t tell you the answer. But generally, culturally, we’re not long-term investors, certainly not when the benefits are nebulous and far off and the pain points are obvious and immediate. As Joel argues, for web standards under IE this is a late-bound issue–they can throw the switch any time to go back to a more relaxed mode. But the issue of Vista running out of memory and 64-bit versions not being ready for prime time is a lot harder to resolve.

Cheap Router as Wireless Bridge

I recently had a desperate need for a wireless bridge device. The need has passed, but I finally figured out a way to do it without spending $60+ for a dedicated (one port) bridge. The main goal here is to provide a physical Ethernet jack somewhere out on your wireless network for a device or devices that can’t connect to wireless directly. I was able to get this working just now using a $25 refurbished Netgear WGT624v3 from Fry’s. I followed (and interpreted, because it’s not as step-by-step as it could be) these instructions. Supplemented with information from this thread.

What’s really amazing about this is that you end up using a shell session on the router, without having to hack the firmware (though you are exploiting a disabled interface and a NetGear diagnostic tool that turns it back on). It’s pretty strange.

In any case, I can now put four physical Ethernet ports anywhere within range of my wireless network. The bridge is effectively dumb and invisible–DHCP, DNS, etc. all come from the access point.

Not directly needed, but here’s some interesting background on hacking NetGear equipment.

The best part about this? I found the original thread, and the fact that this was all possible, using my Sprint phone while standing in Fry’s staring at the blank brown box of the refurbished WGT624 wondering “WTF is this?” (iPhone? We don’t need no stinking iPhone.)

Potential limitations that may reduce the usefulness of this. I don’t know if these are actual limitations, but I haven’t tested beyond my own setup.

  • Tested only bridging to NetGear access point (potential issues with other brands?)
  • Tested only 64-bit WEP encryption (some of the comments mentioned problems with WPA)
  • Tested only with published SSID at the AP
  • Possible wireless saturation/interference–when I tried this with the bridge a few inches from my Thinkpad, the internal Centrino wireless could no longer connect, and I’ve read that some BIOS versions of this router produce illegally-strong radio signals

Amazon EC2: Virtual Hardware as a Service

I’m not sure how I missed this, or how long it’s been available, but as the next logical step after their “storage as a service” S3 solution, Amazon has come out with with the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). Essentially this combines server virtualization (which if you’ve worked with me, or heard me talk about work, you know I’m all about lately) with the massive server farms at Amazon via an ever-expanding web service system. Basically you build or choose virtual machine images and run them on an arbitrary number of virtual servers at Amazon. It’s “dedicated server” hardware co-location without the hardware. The idea is you can create an entire “data center” by interconnecting these images–for example, running several web servers, against a couple of database servers. And if you need to double the size of your data center, it’s a batch copy to invoke more servers–just pay for the “instance hours” you use. This is heady, brain-baking stuff. They even have a pre-built Window 2003 Server image running under Fedora Core 6 via Qemu (itself a virtualization environment). Hey, wasn’t I just talking about turtles all the way down?

So, how much does all this cost? The short answer is, you pay for the flexibility–it’s more than root access co-lo for a single-server setup. The long answer is, to run a web server, it’s about $100/month (1 CPU @$73 + 160GB storage @$24), plus bandwidth (where you can really get killed). Compare this to, say, the $100/month root server plan over at 1and1, which comes with two terabytes of transfer (maybe… many ISPs will throttle or boot you if it even looks like you’ll approach the max on your plan). All things being equal, that transfer would cost you an extra $300 at EC2.

A Compiler, Debugger and Software CPU in 50K

This is an amazing JavaScript virtual machine for 6502 assembly language. In one JavaScript file (under 50K) they managed to include a compiler, debugger, software CPU, and graphics sub-system. I use virtualization software every day, but not since reading The Diamond Age have I seen such a compelling demonstration of the fact that any computer can act like any other computer through software alone. This is exactly the kind of turtles-all-the-way-down metaphor that gets us things like The Matrix and the domino computer. It’s tempting to think of the logic gates in the CPU as the bottom rung of the computing process, but in essence those silicon pathways are there to reverse-virtualize (realize) the logical rules of computing. The CPU is in fact an interface to those rules, and by extension to the brains of the engineers and mathematicians who designed the rules. And what are rules but software? The only place this breaks down is inside the human brain–we don’t know the rules that govern in there–so while you can emulate a computer with your brain, we can’t yet emulate our brains on a computer. But outwardly our participation is governed by rules so effectively we’re part of the machine.

Cheap Remote Power Control

web power switchThe best-kept secret in remote, web-based power control is the Digital Loggers LPC Ethernet Power Controller. Don’t let the hilarious 70s porno background music and voice-over complete with GIANT ANOUNCER VOICE put you off. This is simply the only cost-effective multi-outlet power controller for home office use. For about $100 shipped you get a web-based, eight-outlet controller that’s built like a tank: wall-mountable metal case, built-in cooling fan, “real” heavy-duty wall outlet receptacles. In a year of use I’ve never had it unexpectedly change the state of an attached device, and I’ve never had to reboot it. If you’re really hard-core, it’s even controllable via code (see PDF manual for example PERL script).

Though I have been completely happy with the unit, there are a couple of quirks. For one, I’ve sometimes been unable to log in remotely using Internet Explorer, especially over public Wi-Fi. Continued attempts will cause a temporary security lockout. The workaround is to use Firefox (before the lockout!), which has never failed. The only other complaint I’ve had is noise. The tiny, high-speed case fan makes this the loudest device in my office (always on, of course), except on the hottest days when the processor fan on my P4 maxes out.

One of the nice things about the big metal box school of design employed by Digital Loggers is you’re somewhat encouraged to crack the case. Once my warranty is up in June I’ll probably drill some holes and replace the fan with a larger, slower one. I’m also going to investigate the possibility of splitting half the outlets onto a separate power supply, thus allowing for some UPS-protected outlets and some unprotected ones. Theoretically the supply side of the relays should be independent of the switching side. I probably wouldn’t even consider this kind of mod on a more expensive or injection-molded plastic unit.

For server rooms, Digital Loggers also offers an intriguing upgrade unit, the EPCR2. This ads extra outlets (though still eight circuits), dual power supplies and power cords, metering and monitoring, front-panel override switches, and backup dial-up access via serial ports–all in a 2U rack-mount chassis. I almost bought this one, but the $300 price tag was a little much for home use.

A note on customer service: Because I was working on a deadline (leaving for vacation), I ended up ordering by phone to discuss expedited shipping. Digital Loggers is a small company, and they keep it old school–hand sending email confirmations and seemingly remembering your name between calls. I had not experience that level of customer service since having a personal sales rep at CDW in the 90s (and I was spending a lot of corporate money with them to get that). Quite refreshing.

I can’t recommend this product or company enough.

The Crazy Box of Parts School of Computing

vantec cb-isatau2 parts
It’s not that often that I come upon a truly wonderful device that I never knew existed and yet have always needed. The Vantec CB-ISATAU2 is such a device. It’s a universal IDE/SATA hard drive to USB 2.0 converter.

If you’re like me, you have a stack of old hard drives sitting around. And yet it’s a little nerve wracking to open up the case on a perfectly good computer and plug in one of these mystery drives–will it have a virus? will it wreck my computer? will I disturb something else while I’m in there? No more. With this insane box of parts you can take any internal hard drive (and I mean any: PATA, SATA, 2.5″, 3.5″) and run it as a USB 2.0 external drive. Just plug in the dongle and included external power supply. It’s basically an external enclosure without the enclosure.vantec cb-isatau2 connected

And the best thing is, it just works. I had an old Caviar 120GB drive that had gone questionable at some point sitting on my desk. I plugged it in–dongle, power, USB–and immediately got four new drives (four partitions on the drive).results in explorer of hooking up the vantec cb-isatau2

As you probably know if you have any interest in a device like this… You should disable Autoplay before doing this because Windows may try to find something to run on each partition if Autoplay is enabled. Also, like any external hard drive, you should stop the device before disconnecting it or powering it down.

Got a crazy box of parts? Then you need this crazy box of parts.

Did Poor Customer Service Really Kill Dell?

This blogger believes that customer service, or the lack thereof, has been the deciding factor in Dell’s decline. He cites “low cost and high operational efficiency” as not being enough. While I’ve personally considered Dell a disappointment in terms of hardware performance and reliability, I’ve never heard anyone complain about the service (aside from having to call them all the time because the systems keep breaking). Certainly no more than I’ve heard complaints about Sony or Apple (and reliability has been an issue for these manufacturers as well).

I’d like to present an alternate theory: that rather than rebel against poor customer service, what customers have really shied away from is Dell’s “directness.” I think that increasingly consumers have been pushed (back) toward retail computer buying. There are many reasons for this. Bundling and 0% financing options are one big one. The perceived value of a free printer or scanner at retail usually far outweighs the cost of delivering it. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to wait for the “0% on all Computers until 2008” insert in the Sunday paper than it is to wade through the shady 10% coupon deals for Dell on eBay.

Proliferation of choice may also be a factor: I think consumers have become less confident in their ability to choose the right system and components online, and Dell’s plethora of models and configuration options works against them in this regard. Intel vs. AMD (how many cores do I need? 32- or 64-bit? And don’t even get me started on the “processor number” debacle), a half-dozen different kinds of RAM (DDR? DDR2? what’s PC-3200 in Mhz? and how much do I need?!), three or four generations of hard drive technology all currently available, XP vs. Vista, CD vs. DVD.

And then there’s the sales aspect–dragging people squirming and clutching their wallet that last few feet to the register. Should I wait for Vista? What if BlueRay suddenly languishes and I can get an HD-DVD drive for $50 next month? In an almost perverse reversal of the status quo, I think the geek at Best Buy and the WalMart sale flier are actually keeping the PC unit sales flowing at this point with gentle hand holding and impulse buys. Conversely, anyone confident and patient enough to shop online has been in a holding pattern for at least six months.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Dell making some deals for retail placement this year. Given that they already have a rivalry/relationship, WalMart/Sam’s Club is the obvious first step. Costco is always a possibility. But to really make a go of it, Dell is going to need to get in bed with one of the big chains: Best Buy or Circuit City. Or, if they want to really hit it out of the park, Target. This strategy helped pull Gateway out of the fire when their online business dropped off (which, ironically, did have something to do with customer service). Adjusted for the 21st century, it could work for Dell too.